Hurricane Katrina in a Human Security Perspective

Article excerpt

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, a joke circulated to the effect that had the people of New Orleans wanted the federal government to come to their rescue right away, they should have blamed the storm on Al Qaeda.

Sometimes it takes sarcasm to make a point. An administration that has masterfully exploited post-9/11 security fears to justify many of its actions proved itself downright uninterested in undertaking adequate measures to protect the Gulf coast population against the very real threat posed by Hurricane Katrina.

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration embraced a muscular security policy with relish--as manifested in its invasion of Iraq and sharply escalating military expenditures. But the administration resolutely turned its back on a broader understanding of security that has slowly gained currency in academic and policymaking circles. It has become quite clear that in many circumstances weapons are simply inappropriate tools. They possess awesome destructive power, but can do little or nothing to protect us from environmental breakdown, rising competition for resources, a resurgence of infectious diseases, growing wealth disparities, and demographic pressures--non-military threats that may be every bit as lethal as the actions of a determined enemy.

Several factors, including ecosystem destruction, population growth, and the economic marginalization of poor people, have in combination set the stage for more frequent and more devastating "unnatural" disasters--natural disturbances made worse by human actions. The number of disasters worldwide has risen from about 750 in 1980-84 to almost 2,000 in 2000-04; the number of people affected has risen from about 500 million to 1.4 billion during the same period of time.

Death and Destruction

The costliest and among the deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history (see sidebar, "Bad Company: Katrina versus Other Disasters," right), Hurricane Katrina caused destruction on a scale reminiscent of a marauding force of invaders. More than 1,800 people perished. Along with Hurricane Rita a month later, the storm turned an estimated 750,000 residents of New Orleans and other cities along the Gulf coast into refugees, scattering them not only in surrounding counties and states but also much farther afield.

For many, the prospects for returning home are still uncertain. While the New Orleans levees have been repaired, they are now no more able to handle a storm of Katrina's caliber than they were last year. The overall capability of the city's flood protection system remains suspect. And by designating certain areas of New Orleans as "delayed recovery" and tearing down damaged low-income housing without replacement, post-disaster decisionmaking is placing additional obstacles in the path of many seeking to return (see "Race and the High Ground in New Orleans," p. 40).

A Census Bureau report found that, as of January 2006, Louisiana's hardest hit counties had lost 385,000 people, about 39 percent of its total population (see table, right). Orleans Parish lost 64 percent, while the smaller St. Bernard Parish was almost totally depopulated, losing 95 percent. An estimated 80 percent of New Orleans' pre-storm African-American population was displaced.

The storm also had major impacts on economic security (see "Katrina's National Security Impacts," p. 23). Losses are estimated at a staggering $100 billion or more. The Gulf of Mexico and the coastal area stretching from Texas to Alabama host a dense collection of oil platforms, rigs, pipelines, refineries, and petrochemical plants. Katrina shut down much of the area's oil extraction--which accounts for a quarter of U.S. output--and knocked out about 10 percent of U.S. oil refining capacity. At a time of tight supplies, these effects contributed to the upward pressure on energy prices.

Katrina also highlighted another vulnerability. The Mississippi River, along with the port facilities clustered near New Orleans, serves as a major import and export artery. …